Historically, North Carolina has been what the New York Times recently called “a beacon of farsightedness in the South.” From the original Woolworth’s sit-in, which many credit as a major factor in launching the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, to the 2008 election, when the state turned blue and helped propel America’s first black president to victory, North Carolina has been a persistent contradiction to the idea of a monolithic South.
But a conservative backlash started brewing pretty much as soon as the champagne bottles were popped at the Obama victory party. The truth is, for all its progressiveness, there is also a deep strain of virulent racism in the state, and the indignity of having to refer to a black guy as President turned people who had been average Fox News watching couch potatoes into political activists.
This past election, that backlash came to fruition as the GOP took control of both the state general assembly and the governor’s mansion, something that had never happened once in the 114 years since Reconstruction.
Actually, indications that something was rotten in Raleigh came even before the election, when a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was passed in May 2012. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, and it was the first time I ever felt anything resembling shame in telling people where I was from. The fact that the amendment was passed by public ballot was even more of a kick in the nuts, because I couldn’t just blame it on a reactionary minority. It felt like my home, and everybody in it, had gone crazy.
And if there was any doubt about the direction North Carolina politics was taking, the Republican victory last November erased it. Aside from giving the general assembly majority to the GOP, the people of the state saw fit to elect Pat McCrory, former mayor of Charlotte, as governor.
Full disclosure: I lived in Charlotte while McCrory was mayor, and shudder to think of him doing to the state what he did to the city. Things like hamstringing the completion of the I-485 outer loop in favor of his pet project: a bloated-budget light rail. While I’m sure the light rail made big money for McCrory’s developer cronies, with exactly one line (MTA it’s not), the project did little to improve the city’s broken public transit system.
And as for the I-485 corridor, construction was halted with less than five miles to go, so if you happen to be on the wrong side of the gap, you have to literally drive the opposite direction for nearly an hour to get to your destination (or forgo the corridor altogether and drive through heavy stop-and-go traffic, which sort of defeats the purpose of spending mega-millions on a corridor to begin with). Public administration at its finest.
So far, the state has dropped out of the federal long-term unemployment benefits program (a major problem in a place with the fifth highest unemployment in the nation), repealed the groundbreaking Racial Justice Act of 2009 (legislation designed to provide an opportunity for death row inmates to prove racial discrimination in their case), intensified voter ID requirements along with drastically cutting back on early and weekend voting, and dropped education spending lower than it’s been since 2007, placing North Carolina 46th in the nation in that metric. The last one is particularly biting, as the state has long enjoyed a reputation as somewhere you move to because the public schools are great.
The legislation that hasn’t gone up for a vote yet is even worse, including a bill that would actually make Christianity the official state religion. Admittedly, that one probably won’t see the governor’s desk, but HB 695—an anti-abortion bill that would essentially close every clinic in the state—almost certainly will.
Thankfully, the old progressive North Carolina seems to be—finally—fighting back in earnest, forming its own version of Occupy, known as “Moral Mondays” (a not-so-subtle jab at the religious fundamentalists who form the political base of Republican power in the state), where protesters have been gathering at the capital every Monday and refusing to leave, despite arrests and other police pressure.
Despite attempts by McCrory and allies to paint the protesters as carpetbagging Yankees coming down to stir up trouble (amazing how the tactics of reactionaries never change—they said the same thing during the civil rights era), the protests are clearly having an effect, evidenced by McCrory’s sudden bout of equivocation regarding whether he’ll sign the anti-abortion bill.
Only time will tell whether this backlash to the backlash forms a genuine long-term movement with a chance of wresting control of the state capital back away from the irrational and greedy. But for the people who have to live under the policies being imposed by the GOP—from the people whose unemployment insurance was unexpectedly cut-off to the teachers going from underpaid to poverty wage—the consequences will continue to take their toll for years to come.
To the rest of the country, let this be a lesson. Who you put in charge matters, especially at the state and local level, and just because you have an issue—rational or irrational—with whoever is currently in power, giving the keys to their opposition won’t necessarily improve the situation. It might actually make it much, much worse.
Alex Benson can be reached at email@example.com